Shame is Not The Answer

Shame is an emotion that seems to infiltrate almost every aspect of our lives and society. The media has been having a field day with shame lately: people should be ashamed of homosexuality, they should be ashamed of having sex, they should be ashamed of what they eat, they should be ashamed of being racist and sexist, or they should be ashamed of being too PC, they should be ashamed of not exercising, they should be ashamed of being dirty…any perceived fault seems to bear stigma along with it. People like to make each other feel ashamed because it’s a really fast way to get the other person to shut up. Even in social justice circles, where I generally agree with the end goals, shaming is a technique that gets used to illustrate to people how bad and wrong their behaviors are. My very informal Twitter poll showed that people think some bad behaviors truly do deserve shame.


Why is shame so popular? Is it really helpful? And what differentiates it from things like guilt? I’d like to suggest that we as a society start cutting back on our shamefest and start finding new ways to illustrate to people that we dislike their behaviors or find their behaviors unacceptable because shame has lots of negative consequences.


Shame as an emotion encapsulates a few things. First, it is the reaction to a rejection or judgment from others. Martha Nussbaum posits that the most primitive shame is the realization that we are not an omnipotent center of the universe and that we cannot constantly be catered to. It is the realization that others do not exist solely to fulfill our needs. As we mature, shame becomes the awareness that others might reject us and that our needs might not get met. It is not inherently related in any way to a bad or negative action. It is simply the reaction to others rejecting you.


Importantly, shame and guilt are two different things. Guilt is in response to a single action: you feel guilty if you know that your action was immoral or wrong. Shame however, points to the entire human being, or to a characteristic of the whole human being. You feel shame if you believe that you are a bad person, or the type of person that others do not want. Overall, this means that shame is an emotion that tells us there is nothing redeemable about us: it does not give us a path forward, and it does not tell us that we can do better. It illustrates to us our weakness, our broken humanity, and how small and wrong we are in this universe.


So why do we love to shame each other so much if shame seems to be such a negative and all-encompassing emotion? Well when we shame each other, we are often protecting ourselves. One of the best ways to keep ourselves from feeling ashamed is by foisting shame on others: we can’t be the weak, subhuman ones if we’re better than THOSE people over there, who are really the bad ones. For a lovely example of this, see Nazi Germany. More often than not, if someone is worried about whether or not they are strong enough, acceptable enough, or safe enough, they create an Other who can take on all of those worries for them: they imbue that other with all the qualities that they dislike about themselves, and then they distance themselves from that other to illustrate just how not weak they are. This is a really nice way for people to feel like they are safe. They surround themselves with what they consider normal, and feel that they are no longer in an unsafe world because all the people around them are just like them and are strong.


Another reason that people like to shame is because they feel that it’s an extremely effective way of getting someone to change their behavior. Shame is an extremely powerful emotion, and we like to think that if someone is ashamed of themselves, they will change their behavior. Shame punishments have become popular lately. When some businessmen in New York urinated on bushes in public, they were sentenced to cleaning the street with toothbrushes. We all laugh and feel that they were not really harmed and that they’ll never ever forget this punishment and thus will change their behavior. Shame seems like a wonderful way to express our societal morals. Particularly in relation to things that we feel are really abominable we want someone to feel shame: if you shoot someone, you should be horribly ashamed of yourself. You deserve to feel shame because you are a bad person.


But is shame actually effective and acceptable? Most studies indicate that it is not. Shame tends to rip apart someone’s self-identity and leave them without any sense that they can recover or be rehabilitated. It excludes them from the community and does not give them an effective way of moving back into the community and improving their behavior. Shame does not tell you that something is wrong with the way you behaved, but that you could change it and be welcomed back. Shame tells you that YOU are wrong and do not belong. Shame tends to be linked to things like addiction, mental illness, anti-social behaviors, and crime. More often than not it does not lead to improved behavior but rather to more self-hatred and a further distancing of oneself from the community. There are very few examples in which using shame improved someone’s behavior.


In addition to the fact that it won’t improve someone’s behavior, shame often damages the individual in extreme ways. Shame can lead to extreme loneliness and antisocial behaviors. It can also cause extreme guilt, self-hatred, self-harm, and other negative coping strategies. For the most part, shame does not allow someone any confidence or self-identity to move forward in life, but pushes them to stagnate and break apart.


Now some people suggest that there are different kinds of shame. There is constructive shame, which allows for reparations and forward movement, and there is a more primitive kind of shame that traps someone in a stigmatized position forever. There is not a clear cut difference between the two though. In one case, the shame simply seems to be deserved. Unfortunately, even when shame might be deserved, it still can lead to negative consequences and still makes it difficult for an individual to see themselves as separate from the negative action they undertook.


Additionally, these two types can easily meld into each other, and even when we believe that something is a constructive version of shame, we may simply be using it to enforce social norms rather than morals designed to keep people safe and happy.  Shame is a dangerous emotion because a little shame goes a long way, and because the majority loves to fall into moral panics by shaming others for no reason. It is easy for a group to stigmatize others in order to make themselves feel safer, and all too often even well-meaning shame becomes cruel, oppressive, and stigmatizing. While it may be tempting to try to shame others to get them to understand when they’re behaving poorly, shame is not an effective or helpful tool to improve our societies and communities. If we do want others to feel bad, guilt is a more appropriate technique as it points to the specific action they did wrong.

4 thoughts on “Shame is Not The Answer

  1. Greg Laden says:

    Interesting, and you make a lot of good points. But I’ve spent a lot of time standing in the street (not by myself, but with others!) shouting “Shame” and “The Whole World is Watching” and such as police cart off colleagues or crazy anti-choicers rush a clinic and so on and so forth. Shame, or something like it, really is an emotion, visceral, not originated as a social construct though certainly shaped by culture. Identifying shame as a “real” emotion does not mean it should be left alone or run rampant; anger is a real emotion too, for example, and we put limits on that. But shame may be a very important way society limits itself, and limits are absolutely necessary.

    The examples of things people are being asked to be ashamed of that you give, and the idea of stigma, etc. are all important. Various parts of society do seem to identify an awful lot as shameful, inappropriately. But I can think of many examples of things people really do need to be ashamed of.

    Like shaming, for example!

    • oj27 says:

      Oh I absolutely agree that shame is a real emotion, but even real emotions are shaped by our cultural constructs. For example one might feel real and legitimate anger at one’s wife flirting with another man, but that is part of a cultural construct of possessiveness.

      I do however think that we need to look not only at whether an emotion is appropriate to a situation but also whether it’s effective in getting us to what we want. So for example in parenting, a child might have a repeated series of behaviors that indicate something wrong with their character. But we have good evidence that if a parent shames them for it it will likely leave the child damaged in some way. So while it might be appropriate for the child to feel shame, it isn’t effective for the parent to invoke it.

      An important difference to me is whether the shame is coming from an internal source or an external source. Yes, there are certain instances where it is appropriate to feel shame, but generally when we try to invoke it in someone else we make things significantly worse. The most constructive shame usually comes from the individual who needs to feel it, or sometimes someone very close to them who can gently ask them to reexamine their actions.

      So I agree, there may be instances that shame is appropriate, but I don’t think it’s effective or useful as a technique for getting others to change their behaviors.

  2. Greg Laden says:

    Ironically (maybe) the best use of shame may in face be in the most constructed circumstance. When we shout that Dick Cheney should be ashamed for this or that boneheaded thing he did, we don’t expect him to feel shame, or his supporters to suddenly be ashamed of him, but rather, we are pushing in one direction on the edge of the Overton Window, insisting that a certain behavior should not be considered OK. That is entirely constructed and no one is really thinking that anyone involved in a current issue is actually feeling any shame.

    Here’s a concrete example: Concentration camps were a good idea at one point in time. They were used to remove potential insurgents from a region and keep them in check while peace was imposed with superior military might etc. etc. The down side of concentration camps was critically examined by human rights groups and the whole idea that a government or military should be ashamed of this policy was on the table but ignored by the powers that be. But it was on the table.

    So, by the time we got to WW II, and we have Nazi’s and the Japanes Gov. using concentration camps big time, and the US using them as a smaller scale (but also shamefully) the idea that this policy is shameful was very real. We didn’t have to go through the multiple steps of discovering and justifying that, because the political framework existed since it had been created by activists working in South Africa in 1901.

    Now, concentration camps are rare, and those few that exist (i.e. Gitmo?) are unavoidably linked to shame, but it is political not emotional shame.

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